The idea of a direct route across the Isthmus of Suez was considered a fantasy until the 19th century.
Up to that point mariners had to brave pirates and violent storms by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. But the fantasy was taken up by a cross-dressing French wine merchant, Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin (1796-1864). A Utopian socialist and early advocate of gender equality, Enfantin believed the East had a female essence and the West was strictly male. Egypt and in particular the Suez could be their site of reconciliation.
His extravagances and success brought him to the attention of authorities, who argued that he was endangering public morality. Enfantin had announced that the gulf between the sexes was too wide and this social inequality would impede the rapid growth of society. Enfantin called for the abolition of prostitution and for the ability of women to divorce and obtain legal rights. This was considered radical for the time.
In August 1832 he was arrested, and on his appearance in court he desired his defense to be undertaken by two women who were with him, alleging that the matter was of special concern to women; the request was promptly refused. The trial took two days and resulted in a verdict of guilty, and a sentence of imprisonment for a year with a small fine.
A year later he arrived in Egypt where he pushed for a project linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. His idea reached Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat serving in Cairo. He founded an entity called The Suez Canal Company and persuaded Egypt to support the project. By 1869 the 120 miles miracle in the desert was complete.
The Suez Canal is one of the wonders of the world. Nineteen Thousand vessels a year pass through the Canal, loaded with more than a billion tons of goods.
On his return to France, Enfantin occupied minor offices. He became first a postmaster near Lyon, and in 1841 was appointed, through the influence of some of his friends who had risen to posts of power, member of a scientific commission on Algeria, which led him to engage in research concerning North Africa and colonization.
In 1845 he was appointed director of the Paris & Lyons railway. Three years later he established, in conjunction with Duveyerier, a daily journal, entitled Le Credit, which was discontinued in 1850.
Enfantin held fast to his ideals and beliefs to the end. His personal influence over those who associated with him was immense.
"He was a man of noble presence, with finely formed and expressive features. He was gentle and insinuating in manner, and possessed a calm, graceful and winning delivery." – (Gent. M. Jan. 1865).
His evident sincerity, his genuine enthusiasm, gave him his marvelous ascendancy. Enfantin died suddenly in Paris on September 1, 1864. He was listed by Lessups as the founder of the Suez Canal.
Pier Angelo was born in Italy, moved to England at the age of 17 and learned English at the Nelson School of English. He attended college and graduate school in Manhattan. In 2009 he founded SFGN with Norm Kent. Now he’s retired with his husband Tom and his Affenpinscher Cabbage. He still enjoys writing his column Off The Wall for SFGN.